Bombarded as we are with the media’s sound bites and video clips, it is difficult to imagine a time when the task of recording and recounting the news of the world was assigned to artists and their paintings.
For several centuries, historical painting was considered the very pinnacle of achievement in the French Academy’s hierarchy of genres. This fact inspired Pierre Landry, a curator at La Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal (MACM) to revive and update the practice in the institution’s summer show, “We come in peace/Histories of the Americas.”
“Histories” comprises mostly new work from 17 artists working in the Americas. The theme here is contemporary artists taking a look back at, and commenting on, major events in their respective nations’ histories. Here are French settlers and indigenous peoples in Quebec, of course, but also veteran rock vocalist Ozzy Osborne urinating on the Alamo in Texas (in a Ruben Ortiz-Torres piece), as well as a model of a soccer stadium turned torture pen under the regime of Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet by Cristian Silva. His father had been a commentator in the stadium before the junta moved in.
Explains Landry: “I felt that over the last 20 years or so there had been many works based on parallel histories and events in the margins of mainstream history. I decided, therefore, to look at work dealing with well-known moments in history — in other words, at cliches.”
Regina Silveira’s installation “The Saint’s Paradox” (1994/2004), which greets visitors in the show’s first large room, is a wall-filling silhouette of celebrated Brazilian general the Duke of Caixas. Standing on a plinth several meters in front of the silhouette is a small, frontlit wooden model of a horseman, positioned so as to lead the viewer to assume it is throwing the big wall shadow of the Duke. But, as with much of the work in this show, things are not what they seem.
The model is actually a statuette of St. James the Greater, patron saint of the Spanish Army at the time of the “discovery” of the Americas. It’s an effective treatment, which both establishes the theme of history and introduces the motifs of illusion and dualism that weave through this exhibition.
Liz Magor’s sepia-toned photographs at first glance appear to show groups of Native Americans and European soldiers, the two camps frequently locked in “battle.” The attendant text reveals that the pictures were in fact shot in the 1990s, at “living history” events in Canada and the United States.
Looking carefully, one can find clues (such as perfect white teeth, ironed trousers and so on) that betray the recreations. In an artist’s statement, Magor dryly comments on the type of person who participates in these war-game re-enactments, who strives for authenticity in every detail of a soldier’s appearance while avoiding the soldier’s raison d’etre: “No re-enactor gets real about injury and death. Again and again he is not the corpse, not lost in the woods, he survives the weekend.”
I liked the politically incorrect humor in Cynthia Girard’s 2002 “Filles de roi / Filles de joie” (Daughters of the king/ Daughters of joy), a large painting of a map of Quebec with the St. Lawrence River depicted as fallopian tubes with a discharge of naked French women (sent by the king to increase the population of the then New France).
Elsewhere on the map, far off the beaten trail, a colonist who has “gone native” is seen romping with an aboriginal woman. In a similar vein, a tragicomic series of faux history paintings from Kent Monkman, including “The Rape of Daniel Boone Junior” (2002), depict Native Americans sodomizing their European guests.
Also here is an engaging video piece from Raphael de Groot, alongside work from Carlos Garaicoa, Robert Houle, Manuel Pina, Monique Regimbald-Zeiber, Rosange la Renno, Jose Alejandro Restrepo, Kara Walker, and tile and oozing “meat” sculptures from Adriana Varejao, an artist we saw earlier this summer in the Brazil show at the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art.
An ample and nicely designed museum, the MACM has laid this exhibition out well, using areas of open space here and stuffing things round corners there. Down one long dark corridor I found my favorite piece, Stan Douglas’ “Nu-tka” (1996): A video projection of two overlapping slow panoramas pans round the set of islands where Europeans first came into contact with the aborigines living near Canada’s west coast.
The video is synchronized with a two-channel narrative soundtrack, and as the images come into focus, the two male voices converge. The atmosphere, created by vistas of cold, lapping water and light mist, faraway mountains and vague poetic language, is just wonderfully mysterious.
Although artists’ perspectives on world news are not widely recognized at the moment, this exhibition suggests that they remain capable of bringing us interesting and perhaps even deeper appreciations of how we are evolving, providing new ways of seeing and feeling the stuff that makes up human histories.
“Histories” is both personal and universal, covering a great variety of periods and cultures seen through a wide range of styles and media. It evokes pride, shame, sadness and laughter — and somehow, it works.
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